On a road across a barren plateau, during a break in their journey, a lord, Akzasosan, is speaking to his barbarian servant, Early, and a mysterious child, Zysoshin

…‘Well, be that as it may. I am a long way from the Heart of Eternity, and a long way from the things I used to be. Still, in Subtle wisdom, it is asked: “What shape does a moment have?” And the wise ask back: “What shape does a cloud have?” This is what I have been taught. Moments are like clouds, they have no fixed shape. And all of time is a cloud. It drifts, it has no base. You ask: why do we burn your towers? And the answer goes back, eras and dynasties, through clouds of time, to a period before knowledge is knowledge, before myth… is myth… There is something wrong with that beast.’

Zyso looked up in the same direction as the Lord was staring.

It was the pack pony. The creature, despite being so heavily laden, was trying to turn its head and, with bared teeth, appeared to be grimacing, or nipping at the air. At the same time, it was lifting its left hind leg, and giving little kicks. The sway of the head, and the convulsive jerking of the leg, made it seem as if the pony were performing a peculiar dance.

The Lord’s frowning stare was full of a cold stuff. Zyso gazed up at the adult. Was that… fear?

‘What is the matter with the beast?’

He sounded querulous.

Immediately, master and servant set off back to examine the pony. Burning towers and moments like clouds were discarded. Zyso, watching the riders stomp off, sensed the unease and, without thinking, stood up and followed, straggling a small distance behind.

‘It’s the wound’ Akzasosan was muttering. ‘If the beast dies out here, stranding us in this wilderness…’ The timbre of his voice changed. Frozen, subterranean anger melted and rose up towards the surface… ‘I thought I told you to change the dressing!’

Shion, I did!’ Early protested.

‘You’ve been clumsy! If it’s infected… How many times have I told you, clean hands? To take care…’

Shion…’

They had utterly forgotten Zyso. They were in their own world.

‘Here, I will steady the beast. You, open it up.’

Akzasosan grabbed hold of the cheek strap of the pack pony’s bridle, and exerted his strength to keep the creature’s head from twisting around. The servant crouched down and dextrously began to undo the dressing.

Zyso had come to an uncertain halt, a few dedaziles from the ponies. The pack beast was side-on to him. He saw how its large eyeball rolled as the creature, head restrained by Akzasosan, tried to look back down the length of its body. A thick spittle drooled out from the mouth, the lips drawn back on big square yellowing teeth. Zyso saw how the saliva draped and slithered down Akzasosan’s riding cloak.

Hushhh. Shhhhh, there’ the Lord murmured angrily, and he stroked the side of the creature’s head.

How soothing that voice is, Zyso thought.

‘Well?’ the Lord was asking, over his shoulder.

‘It is nearly off, Shion…’

Early had undone the bandage, and was peeling back the metal foil from the hide. As he did so, he suddenly sprang a little way back, and uttered a grunt of repugnance.

‘Ugh! Wo!’

He straightened, and shuddered himself, as if he wanted to shake his own fingers loose, and get rid of what they had touched. He shook the Metallic foil dressing very hard, terrified that there was something on it which might come into contact with his person.

Zyso stared. He felt drawn to the wound, but drawn because he sensed there was something horrible about it, something he should not see.
We should have had magic horses, like the Wizard Brix’s Pinana, he thought. Magic horses, to ride and ride and ride…

But the pack pony had no ZingZang magic about it. It had no horseshoes made from the dried bitter tears of Vengeful Dragon, shoes harder than any Metallic zuth, imperishable!…

Uxo. Instead, it had things clinging to it. Small, pale, wriggling things.

Zyso could see clearly. He could make out the discolouration around the hide where the shining foil had hidden the wound. The cream skin had been gashed, there was odd purple and crimson and lilac tissue, but squirming around in the flesh, there were maggots. Exposed, some of them dripped and slipped out and fell into the snow. The rest were all trying to crawl deeper into the darkness of the flesh again.

‘Well?’ Akzasosan asked, craning round, his back still to Early, his weight leaning into the pony, hand gripping the cheek strap, seeking to keep the animal calm.

Shion – you must look!’ the barbarian said.

The Lord twisted about, but of course couldn’t see what was happening. Early came over and took hold of the bridle.

More of the pale, glistening creatures were dropping out of the wound. Zyso watched them twist and writhe on the cold surface of the snow. He saw how they were glistening, segmented spikes of organism. Others seethed in the ruined tissue of their host.

Zyso was afraid. Afraid of the maggots, and afraid of the expression on Akzasosan’s face. How tall the Lord was, how long his shadow as he turned in the sun. But what did he carry inside him? What were the emotions that made his face look so hard and so cruel?

Then everything changed. A look of disgusted astonishment came onto Akzasosan’s face. For a few moments, he stared quite rigidly at the pony’s disturbed flesh.

Bis… ZuShillo!’ he said, quietly. Then he turned to look at Early, as if to seek confirmation for his own amazement. The Lord was shaking his head. ‘This is… unfeasible…’ he said.

Surprise had softened him.

‘This shouldn’t happen’ he went on. ‘It is a disease of heat and summer. How could there be blowflies up here, at this time of year?’

‘It isn’t my fault, Shion!’ Early declared. ‘I was careful.’

Akzasosan ignored him. He shook his head again.

‘My Karo is bad’ he said. ‘I do not know what I have done to… This is absurd!’ he ended.

Zysoshin couldn’t help but stare at the exposed wound. It was suppurating a pallid fluid. The boy felt queasy, and yet he couldn’t look away. There was something compelling about the sight of the maggots twisting and creeping about, something fascinating and peculiarly convincing about the way they had so completely infiltrated the flesh of another creature. Zyso sensed he was witnessing a kind of truth. That was partly what magnetised him to the sight. He felt as if he could fall inside that wound, that it was an abyss, and he was standing on the edge of it…

Excerpt from Stories in the Falling Snow, Volume 3 of Dustless


 

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